Episodic Big Budget Games – Maybe It’ll Be Okay?

The news that the new Hitman game is going episodic initially annoyed me. It reminded me a lot of the Final Fantasy VII remake doing the same thing, and how that reaction went. This time, however, I thought about it some more and turned around on it. Most of the credit for that probably goes to Captain Codfish for giving me a prompt to articulate just what I was so unhappy about.

Turns out the answer was a lot of fear that it might suck, more than that it actually does suck. And to be clear, it could suck quite a lot. The news that they’re selling all the episodes upfront for a normal AAA game price suggests that maybe it won’t, though. Even still, Square-Enix is taking a lot of flak for trying to do it. There must be an upside to them, right?

Breaking The Layoff Cycle

Aside from crunch, one of the things that can suck about game development is that it has a cycle of layoffs. This especially plagues smaller studios, but even larger ones can suffer from it.

The core problem is that you need differing amounts of staff at different stages of development, and unless you’re big enough to keep the other staff busy, you’re paying people to be idle. A lot of studios can’t afford to do that, so we get layoffs, and then hiring later when they have to staff up again. This is espcially true after a big development push, when the next set of content (or next game) is at the early stages. Consider:

  • Early on in design and development, you may not be sure just where you’re going yet. You don’t need 50 developers and a large QA staff.
  • For a while, you will need to make tons of assets  (art, voice over work, cutscenes). You can’t do some of those until after writing is done, and once it is, what do the writers do?
  • Once the assets are done and the game has moved into being closer to release, what do the artists do?
  • You need a big development and testing staff closer to release, but once you get there, those people will have a lot less to do.

DLC partially alleviates this, by having more content in the pipeline, so that you can keep people busy. Episodic games are a refinement of the model.

In an episodic game? Episode 3 can be in the design and writing stage while episode 2 is in the asset creation and development stages, while episode 1 is in the final push to release stage. You have the same people as before, only now everyone constantly has work. This starts to look something like a manufacturing operation, for good reason: manufacturing operations are very good at utilizing capacity.

The stability this model generates if it works helps companies keep staff, and gives staff some stability. That’s good for everyone, as experienced staff don’t make mistakes that new recruits make.

Cash Flow & Cutting Losses

In a traditional development cycle, someone (like a publisher) puts up the budget up front. The game gets made. The game gets sold. If it does well, great! If it does poorly, you just lost a ton of money.

The biggest problem with this model is that genres that publishers won’t bet on get undeserved, because making games is expensive. Early access and kickstarter came about to deal with that, by getting developers money for only a partial game, they can have cash flow and keep developing without needing the entire budget up front.

Early access suffers from a lot of games that go into it being unpolished and not ready for prime time, which cuts off a lot of the audience before you start. Episodic gaming could do it even better:

  1. By putting out only a piece of the game, you cut costs, development time, and can get that piece out on a lower budget.
  2. By focusing on less stuff, you can actually polish it, and avoid the biggest pitfall of early access.
  3. If it sells, you have cash flow to make the next episode.
  4. If it doesn’t sell, the market told you that it’s not interested and you cut your losses without building a bunch more game that also won’t sell.

Telltale Games does this to a T, and we get the very highly praised Tales From The Borderlands series out of it. Telltale’s business likely wouldn’t work without the ability to release in episodes.

What About Gamers?

I’ve talked a lot about why it’s good for the business end, but is it good for gamers? Maybe.

A lot depends on how the model is used. Square is clearly trying to alleviate price increase fears with Hitman by offering an upfront package that contains all the episodes, meaning you buy at “full game” price and you get the full game. For diehard Hitman fans, that’s likely the way to go.

How about people who are new to the franchise and not sure if they’d like it? That first episode is going to cost significantly less than a full game. Unlike waiting for a Steam sale, you can buy it cheap on day one. If you like it, great! You now have more to look forward to. If you don’t? You’ve lost considerably less money.

What about people who want the complete game so they can play it all in one go? Those people feel upset that they have to wait. But, they’d have to wait anyway. Without episodes, nothing would come out until the full game is done. It takes longer to make the full game than it does to make an episode, obviously. They do now have to wait while other people are playing and they’re not, but that’s the definition of a first world problem.

Improvements to the lives of game developers should also be welcome by gamers. Developers are people too, and having them have something resembling a sane working environment is good for everyone. You don’t get top quality work out of people who are applying somewhere else because they expect to be laid off after development finishes.

A Lot Depends on Square-Enix

While smaller companies like Telltale have been doing this for a while, Square-Enix is on a much larger scale. Hitman’s budget is on a scale far beyond most episodic games, and Final Fantasy VII is going to be one of the largest releases of the year when it comes out.

How well Square-Enix does with using this model will have a major impact on what other companies do. If they handle it well and customers buy in? Expect others to follow suit.

Quitting Disgaea 5, Currency rates & game pre-purchases, Toddler Games, and Social Gaming without MMOs

Bit of a mismash of thoughts today, as 2016 gets going.

Originally, my plan for January was to keep going with Disgaea 5, and finish the post game. At this point, I’m convinced that isn’t going to happen. Why? There’s two reasons. The first is that I’m at the point in the post game where the grind level goes way up, just to make numbers bigger. With highly limited gaming time, grinding holds very little appeal over a game that offers a more well rounded experience (like Disgaea 5 did before getting this far into the post game). That resulted in it starting to feel like a slog rather than fun, and at this point I’m too old and too busy to play something that isn’t fun.

The other reason? I got Pillars of Eternity as a Christmas present.

It sunk it’s teeth into me and will not let go. Grinding out XP can’t compete with a whole new world to explore. I’m sure I’ll have more to say later as I get farther into it, but so far it’s a gem that I missed when it launched.

Countdown to XCOM 2 Day

The big difficulty Pillars of Eternity has for me is that I pretty much need to finish it before XCOM 2 is out. I loved XCOM: Enemy Within, and the way they’ve inverted things in XCOM 2 with you now being a resistence group willl really mix things up. I expect that to completely monopolize my single player gaming time once it’s out.

The biggest downside to XCOM 2 is price, and that’s a global game pricing issue. I’m in Canada, and unlike places like Australia, Canada tends to pay the US price in games. For the last few years that had been working out pretty well, even when Steam shifted recently to doing transactions in Canadian dollars (until a year or two ago, all transactions were in US dollars).

Then, the oil market tanked and the Canadian dollar tanked with it. Here’s a five year chart vs USD, from XE.com:

CAD vs USD 5 year
Oow pain.

As recently ago as the middle of 2014, $1 CAD was worth around $0.95 USD, which meant prices were more or less at parity. It went downhill fast from there, and games that were $50 became $60. Then $70. The fancy edition of XCOM 2 on Steam is pushing up towards $100, and it’s not getting any cheaper. This is a perverse incentive to pre-purchase, because the longer I wait to pay, the more expensive the game gets. Steam hasn’t adjusted their price again recently, but there is now talk of the dollar dropping below $0.70 USD, in which case they’d almost certainly have to.

This is also affecting things like imported food products, and, well, imported everything. Other people have it even worse, like Brazilian gamers, as they’re facing a steeper currency devaluation. It’s just one of those things that American gamers don’t have to think about, as games are priced in USD and stay the same price no matter what the US Dollar does. In other countries, gamers on a budget benefit from keeping an eye on future trends in foreign exchange rates.

Toddler Gaming

I have a two year old son. He obviously likes to play, but he doesn’t care for things like rules. This was most apparent when I showed him my new box of Formula D, which is a F1 racing board game.

He loves the board, because it’s a race track. He loves the pieces, which are race cars and dice. He has no interest in the rules whatsoever, as he plays his own version. His version is: roll the dice, cheer at the number you got, then do whatever you want. Also, if daddy’s winning, his car suddenly has super glue and can stop daddy’s car. Or crash it off the road. Or make it go sit on a boat in the Monaco harbour for a while.

Board games are pretty ideal to introduce him to gaming, because they’re physical and easy to manipulate. They also don’t care if you invent your own rules, which gives a version that he likes. The first thing he asked when he woke up today is if he could play race cars again. It was pretty awesome.

Social Gaming, sans MMO

I’m fairly sour on MMOs right now, for the reasons I’ve stated numerous times before. That leaves a bit of a gap because while I love my single player games, I also like gaming as a social experience.

I’ve been getting the social aspect a few other ways:

  1. Board Games. We have a board game cafe in town, which is a delightful way to go out for an evening and try a new game. You pay a cover, grab a game off their rather expansive shelf, and start playing. They also have food and drink available if you want it.
  2. Pen & Paper RPGs. I’m in a D&D game and a Pathfinder game, and when those are running it’s a highly social event.
  3. Artemis Starship Bridge Simulator. I bought a copy of Artemis and have most of the hardware needed to run it, so when people come over with laptops, we set it up and play. I have a game setup for this Saturday, and someone in town asked if they could play from their house. I turned them down, because the experience just isn’t the same when the Helmsman is somewhere else and talking over voice chat, as compared to everyone being in the same room.

The social aspect is pretty important to me for these games, as it’s something I can’t get elsewhere. MMOs used to fill that need as well, but as the developers have moved towards making everything single player and “random people you never talk to again” dungeon finder oriented, I just wasn’t getting what I wanted out of them.

Not to mention how expensive subscriptions are getting with the dollar’s decline, and how F2P games have a tendency of turning into exercises in “pay us to make this annoying nonsense go away” or flat out pay to win schemes.